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Thursday, December 29, 2011

Why Do We Still Use Spreadsheets?

Sometimes I find some unfinished article while cleaning up – something I should obviously do more regularly! So here is one of these excerpts that I found particularly relevant as I am discussing the topic of “Manufacturing Intelligence” with a number of companies.

Manufacturing systems software vendors continuously tell us that you cannot have visibility into your operations without a software application, which I have to agree is generally true. This forces us to sift through the onslaught of offerings full of buzz words such as “metrics”, “digital dashboards”, and “business intelligence platforms”. Yet, it is remarkable that one of the most commonly used tools to capture and manage information from the shop floor is The Spreadsheet - typically Microsoft’s Excel. In some cases, even with a major ERP system investment, the Spreadsheet is still the primary source of timely data collection about the manufacturing operations. In other cases, expensive solutions are put in place to capture and collect data from automation equipment but fail to provide the information in a useable context and once again users resort to the spreadsheet.

Why is it then that manufacturing organizations resort to solutions that are based on a spreadsheet? It is typically not because of lack of understanding about information systems or the skills required to use them. It is because a spreadsheet provides the flexibility and ability to manage and present shop floor information in the most useable and advantageous manner. (By the way the common term for “manage and use” is “information consumption”.) Remember that a manufacturing manager’s main focus is productivity and quality. They use this information to obtain metrics about the value stream that they are trying to manage because they need to know how they are performing in real time. This need is similar to that of a sport’s team, where you know where you stand at every second of the game. You don’t have to wait until tomorrow morning’s newspaper to know who won the game. Running a manufacturing operation without real time metrics is like bowling without being able to see the pins. You can see some of the action, you know that something happened, but you don’t know what the result was.

Of course in recent years, manufacturers have gained some visibility with the increased application of technology, but they are still far from what is possible. I also believe that most of the vendors are clearly aware of the needs and I hope that they we will soon start to see Manufacturing Intelligence applications with the flexibility and convenience that we really need.